Gonchar in a sunny shade of yellow
As maillot jaune Tom Boonen came across the finish line and the dust settled in the Brittany town of Rennes, it was time to announce a very different looking leaderboard at the 93rd Tour de France.
At the top was a name many didn't expect at the start of the day - but as history has shown, one should never discount a previous world time trial champion. Pounding his 55x11 along the rolling roads of Rennes, T-Mobile's Serguei Gonchar smashed his rivals into the stratosphere with a time one minute faster than the second-best rider, Floyd Landis of Phonak, with the American's superb performance now elevating him to 'strong favourite' status to win overall.
"This region is apparently good for me, as I became time trial champion in Plouay, not far from here," said a beaming Gonchar. "This place means good luck - if it continues like that, who knows where I will end up!
"This is definitely the greatest day in my life after the world championship [in 2000, which he won - ed.]. This was completely unexpected for me. It went alright in the beginning; later on, I suffered a small crisis due to the headwind but I felt that if I could overcome it, victory could be mine.
"I did my time trial at 100 percent, and I won, so I'm very, very happy," continued Gonchar. "Today, everything worked out; the legs responded perfectly so it was a real pleasure... while still being very painful," he grinned.
No real surprise was 26 year-old German Sebastian Lang from Gerolsteiner, the German TT champ provisional race leader for much of the day until Gonchar decided to take the race into his own hands. And although he didn't win, pre-race favourite and Gonchar's team-mate, Michael Rogers, rode solidly enough for fourth to retain his third position overall.
"It's been a really hard day, although I didn't do a bad pace at all," said the triple world time trial champion.
"I started alright, but apparently the other guys were stronger. My teammate is in the lead, so it's a good day for the team. I went as hard as I could but didn't have the strength to do better."
If that wasn't good news enough for T-Mobile, Patrik Sinkewitz and Andreas Klöden finished fourth and eighth respectively, and are now fourth and sixth overall. For a team who lost their leader and '97 Tour champion Jan Ullrich less than 24 hours before the start in Strasbourg one week ago, four riders in the top ten on GC is nothing short of a resounding success. Allez, T-Mobile, Allez!
Said Gonchar: "At T-Mobile, we were really well-prepared to help Ullrich in the Tour. Now, while I regret his departure, our results still came on."
Three others also worth a mention are Vladimir Karpets (Caisse d'Epargne), Cadel Evans (Davitamon-Lotto) and Denis Menchov (Rabobank), seventh, eighth and ninth on the Classement Général; apart from T-Mobile's awesome foursome, this will be a trio to watch come the Pyrenées next week.
"Coming into the mountains, that's not a bad position to be," said Evans, "but we'll see the truth on paper tonight.
"The wind picked up since this morning, but the difference wasn't that big as during the time trial last year. Today, I wanted to limit my losses, as Landis is the big favourite, but I heard he punctured. Still, the mountains are something completely different than this work," he said.
Rounding out the top ten is CSC's chrono specialist David Zabriskie, tipped to win today's time test but finishing 13th. "I was hoping for the win, but sometimes it doesn't work," he said. "Honestly, I wish could have seen this course in advance. It was hard to get a feel for it. It's like a circus out there."
However, the day was not without casualties in one than one sense of the word, with the victims all coming from across the Atlantic.
Dauphiné Libéré winner Levi Leipheimer (Gerolsteiner) had possibly the worst time trial of his life, inexplicably losing over six minutes to today's stage winner. Another American and third overall in 1998, Bobby Julich (Team CSC), lost control of his bike less than a third of the way into his ride, overcooking his exit from a roundabout and was carted to hospital.
X-rays later revealed there were no broken bones, but Julich will spend the night in the hospital for observation and receive some stitches. And Floyd Landis (Phonak) required a change of bike midway through his ride; had this not have happened, the 30 year-old Californian may be only 30 seconds away from yellow
Asked on his GC chances, Gonchar replied: "The most important thing now is that I have this [yellow] jersey, because I waited for it for a long time. There are two stages before we get into the Pyrenées, then we will see how things are unfolding for me.
"Now I only want to enjoy this jersey and my win, because I tried it already on three occasions in the past. I don't want to think about tomorrow, but of course I'll try to win some more stages," he said.
Make no bones about it: the 2006 Tour de France is quickly turning into one of the most intriguing in years.
How it unfolded
One week into the 93rd Tour De France and Saturday's 52km ITT was the first watershed point at the 2006 Tour. The 52km time test from Saint-Grégoire to Rennes across the countryside of northeast Brittany was slightly rolling over small rural roads in the first half, then on the run-in, the roads are flat and wide open to the finish. There were three intermediate time checks; Geveze' after 16.5km, l'Hermitage after 36.5km and Rennes Universite' after 46.5km.
Saturday opened with wet and windy weather blowing in from the English Channel but improved throughout the day with temps in the low twenties and a light wind blowing from the northwest that was a headwind on the outbound leg and a tailwind on the return to Rennes. Swedish TT champ Gustav Larsson posted the fastest time early on at the intermediate time check after 36.5kms and then at the finish. French TT champ Chavanel then posted the fast time at the first time check, but it was German TT champ Seppel Lang, who was 0'08" behind the Swede at the 36.5km time check at l'Hermitage powered across the line.
Lang had a excellent prologue last Saturday to finish and he exploded on the way into Rennes, besting Larsson's time by 0'30 with a 1h02'47. "I hoped to have a good time today because I'm feeling tired after doing a lot of work for my team this week. I hope my time holds up," explained Lang after he finished. Chavanel went out fast, but slowed and could just get in under 1h05'00.
Lampre-Fondital's Damiano Cunego was hoping for a decent time and told La Gazzetta dello Sport that he would be happy to lose 4 minutes to Stage 7's winner and his 1h08'06 eventually saw him losing 6'22. Orange clad Euskaltel-Euskadi rider Iban Mayo had a respectable 1h07'20.
As the Saturday afternoon weather continued to improve and Lang's time was looking good until his Gerolsteiner teammate Levi Leipheimer started at 15:40, with 24 riders, all the major GC contenders still to come. The American, winner of the Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré one month ago in France, was 3rd in the 43km TT on Stage 3 and was looking for a solid ride today. As the sun shone down, Leipheimer hit the first time check in 21'39 and was clearly having a bad day at the office as he lost 90 seconds over 16.5km to Menchov, the Vuelta a España winner who had set the fastest time at Geveze' with 20'07, 0'15 ahead of CSC's Sastre, who was having a strong start.
Bobby Julich (CSC) was the next Tour contender up and the Reno, Nevada and Nice, France resident was hoping to spin out a fast time today with his Osymmetric chainrings. But like a bad case of déjà vu when he crashed out of the 1999 Tour De France's first TT in Metz, Julich crashed hard in a roundabout after 5km, hurting his right wrist and was forced to abandon the Tour De France.
As the distraught Julich climbed in the ambulance, his CSC teammate Zabriskie rolled out of the starthouse as one of the strong favourites for Stage 7, chasing T-Mobile's Andreas Klöden. Sastre then came through the 36.5km time check 4th fastest to that point behind Larsson, who still held the fastest time at l'Hermitage, while Leipheimer's teammate Markus Fothen had bested Menchov by 1'00 after 16.5km. Klöden then blasted through the 16.5km time check in 19'59 for the fastest time, while Menchov powered through the 36.5km time check on equal time with Larsson. Popovych, Millar, Gonchar, Karpets, Landis, Savoldelli and Hincapie were now all on the course, while back in Rennes, Lang was still in command on the leader board with his 49.7km/h average speed. In the final tale of the timepiece, Lang had a superb ride to end up 3rd on the stage, 1'04 behind the winner.
T-Mobile's World TT champ Mick Rogers rode out of the start house in his Rainbow skinsuit, hoping for a great ride that would propel him into the maillot jaune. At the first time check after 16.5km, Klodi was still in command with the only time under twenty minutes, while CSC's Zabriskie was 5th, 0'15 behind the German.
But as the last two sprinters, Robbie McEwen and Tom Boonen left, T-Mobile's Gonchar pounded his 55x11 through the first time check at 19'37, 0'22 faster than his teammate Klöden. Sastre then came through to finish in Rennes with an excellent time for the Spanish climber, 1h03'54 for 5th, followed by Menchov in 1h03'27 for third fastest time. Out at the 36.5km time check in l'Hermitage, Leipheimer continued to go backwards as he passed the midrace time check in 84th place, 3'30 behind Larsson and Menchov, while Discovery Channel's Popovych was 17th. Landis was off to a fast start after 16.5km, with second fastest tile in 19'54, 0'17 behind Gonchar.
A disappointed Leipheimer crossed the finish line in Rennes after a surprisingly slow ride, losing over 6'05 for 96th place, and likely ending his chances for the general classification at this year's Tour. At the 36.5km time check, a determined Gonchar pounded through in 43'50 at a 50km/hr average for the fastest time of the day, catching his teammate Kessler and now becoming a real threat for the Maillot Jaune.
Gonchar's T-Mobile teammate Andreas Klöden then finished in a strong 1h03'26 for the 4th fastest time to that point, while pre-race favourite Dave Zabriskie finished slower, with a surprising 1h03'40. Back at the l'Hermitage intermediate time check, Dave Z's friend Floyd Landis rode a 44'32 for 2nd fastest time at 36km, but Gonchar was clearly faster than the Phonak man. Then it was time for Discovery Channel's dynamic duo, Paolo Savoldelli and George Hincapie. Savo went through 36km in 45'36 in 16th place, while Hincapie rode 45'53, way back in 25th after 36km.
At the finish in Rennes. Savoldelli rode 1h03'55 for 19th, 2'12 behind the Ukrainian, while Hincapie slowed over the last half and ended up a disappointing 1h04'25 in 24th. Saunier Duval's comeback kid David Millar finished in a decent time of 1h05'17 for 37th, while out on the course, Gonchar continued his machine-like march towards the maillot jaune, powering his huge gear towards the finish. Davitamon-Lotto's Cadel had a good time of 1h03'33 that would bring him 11th on the stage, while more than good was the stunning ride by Sergei Gonchar, who destroyed Lang's time with 1h01'43, a 50.6 km/hr average, beating the German champ by 1'04 to move into the stage lead.
Next up to finish in Rennes was Caisse d'Epargne's Vlad Karpets with a 1h03'35, good enough for 12th for the the lanky Russian. Right behind him, Landis had hung tough on the road to Rennes, finishing in 1h02'44 at an average of 49.9 km/h. to ride into 2nd place on the stage and on overall GC.
World Champ Mick Rogers was 7th after 36.5km with a 45'06 and on the run-in to Rennes, the Aussie tester caught his six minute man Hushovd with 1100m to go and posted an excellent 1h03'07 for 4th on the stage and moved up to 3rd on GC.
The 36 year old Gonchar from Rovno who resides in Mason Vicentino, Italy is the first ever Ukrainian rider to wear the maillot jaune. Gonchar's best Tour De France stage finish is 3rd in a 2002 Tour TT in Lorient behind Botero and Armstrong while with Fassa Bortolo. He's ridden 11 Giros and 3 Tours and won five Giro TT's in his career, but has never won at Le Tour. The 1m76cm, 70kg Gonchar was riding well in the Giro d'Italia but crashed in Viareggio, hurt his back and had to abandon a few stages later. But Gonchar has emerged as a real threat at this year's Tour De France.
Currently in 2nd overall, American Floyd Landis has won three major races this year and after his strong ride today, he has an excellent chance to win the Tour De France. The question for Landis will be if his team can go head to head over the next two weeks with the clearly more powerful T-Mobile squad, who have six of the top 14 on GC, including Klöden, who was Tour runner-up two years ago.
Another major shakeup at the Tour De France was the crash and abandon of CSC's Bobby Julich, who was likely part of a one-two punch with Carlos Sastre team boss Bjarne Riis could have deployed if the American hadn't crashed out of Le Tour on a slippery roundabout in the first kilometres of today's stage. Sastre rode over his head today to finish in 18th and is now in 16th on GC. CSC rider Dave Zabriskie is just ahead of Sastre in 14th and CSC now has limited options at this year's Tour. Caisse d'Epargne-Illes Balears rider Vlad Karpets is sitting in 7th on GC and the powerful young Russian, Best Young Rider at the Tour in 2004, is the team's main man in the absence of Valverde. Cadel Evans (Davitamon-Lotto) is ready for the coming battle and he's currently in 8th on GC and looking to improve. Another Russian, Rabobank's Denis Menchov is now in 8th, and the 2005 Vuelta a España winner wants to move up the GC ladder as well.
Today's time test was a disappointing performance from defending Tour De France champs Discovery Channel cycling team. 2005 Giro d'Italia champ Paolo Savoldelli is their best rider and de facto leader in 13th place on GC, 2'10 behind Gonchar. Savoldelli told Italian TV post stage, "I lost more time than I thought I would today, but I wasn't on a super day. I just couldn't get going again on all the little climbs at the beginning. I started fast, to see where I am. But it's a wide open Tour and no one is above the others."
Stage 8 - Sunday July 9: Saint-Méen-le-Grand-Lorient, 181 km
After a tough time test, this stage across the rolling hills of central Brittany to the gritty seaport of Lorient will be a day when the big teams will likely let an early break get up the road. Rabobank's Oscar the Cat Freire is a likely candidate for the win for his 2nd stage win at Le Tour. After stage 8, the Tour entourage will board a charter flight to Bordeaux and rest day #1.